Economics and Freedom (Matthew 20:1-16)

The parable of the workers in the vineyard calls us to re-evaluate our own economy, to value people over productivity.

Let’s talk economics, old school. The Greek word oikos, which means “house” or “home” is the root word for our English word “economy.” We get it by way of the Greek oikonomia, which means “household.” This is a worthwhile connection to point out, I think, because today’s Gospel calls for a new perspective on our own economy. 

Farmworkers today are often paid by weight for what they pick. Their wages are based on their productivity. This is not a scandalous notion to most of us. We are taught that you work hard for everything you get. A farmworker here in North Carolina, the nation’s leading sweet potato producer, can expect to earn roughly 26 dollars for each ton of sweet potatoes they pick, which comes out to less than minimum wage. Small farms are often exempt from wage laws, and if the worker is undocumented, as they very often are, they have little power to argue for better pay. But I can easily chalk all of that up to market forces at play. The market values the strenuous work of picking 2,000 pounds of sweet potatoes at $26. Those wages, low as they may be, draw people from other countries to come work here. It isn’t scandalous.

It should be scandalous.

If we follow our economy back through to the Greek, we might begin to think of it as a household. Economics describes the relationships by which value is assigned and distributed throughout a system. And the ancient intuition was that it worked like a household. Ephesians 2 tells us that the doors are open wide and we are members of the household of God. Each person not a stranger or an alien, but beloved of God and part of God’s household. God’s economy.

What, then, is valued in this divine economy? Look at today’s Gospel. A landowner is hiring day laborers. Perhaps you’ve seen the places where laborers gather, waiting for someone to come and hire them for the day. If no one comes, they don’t get to work, and don’t get paid. Being a day laborer is a very precarious existence.

The landowner hires some laborers early in the morning, some at 9 o’clock, some at noon, some at three, and some at 5. He really spends a lot of time bringing people to his vineyard, and he tells each group that he would pay them what is fair.

The last group is of particular interest. They have been standing idle in the marketplace all day. We might feel the urge to call them lazy, to assume that they made life choices which justify their unemployment. But the landowner asks them why they have been standing idle all day, and they say “because no one has hired us.” They have been passed over all day. The landowner hires them.

At day’s end, each group gets paid the same sum. The ones who worked from near sunrise to the end of the day get paid the same as the ones who started at 5:00. Anyone of us, had we started working early in the day, would take issue with this. We worked longer, did more work, so we deserve more money. That’s how our economy works. But not the economy of the kingdom of heaven. The grievance of those who worked all day is the grievance of any of us when we have worked hard. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

So then, where is the value assigned? It is, crucially, not assigned to the work done. A person’s worth in God’s household, God’s society, cannot be reduced to the number of grapes they harvested or the sweet potatoes they picked. 

The landowner could have paid a straight hourly wage. He could have even used the surplus of labor to drive wages down. Supply and demand do not work in favor of laborerers in the global economy. The precarity of someone’s situation, in our system, becomes a justification for paying them less. There is always the prospect of someone who will do the work for less, leaving more for profit.

God, in no uncertain terms, rejects that way of assigning value to people. Their value exists in their very existence. Your value exists in your very existence. The landowner in the story places value on the relationship between himself and those he employs. Each receives enough money to make it through the day. They are given, you might say, their daily bread, no matter what. Because that is how God’s kingdom, and God’s economy work. 

There is a lot of resistance in our time to the grace that this story models. We each like to think we are the ones who were hired early in the morning. We have earned what we have, and others are just looking for handouts. Handouts, you may notice, are villified in the mythology of America. We narrate our history as a hardscrabble people fueled by democracy and gumption. A blessed people who manifest our destiny by working exceptionally hard. “God helps those who help themselves” goes the refrain, drawn not from the Bible, but Ben Franklin. It has worked its way into our thinking so much that a local ministry to the homeless used to have a sign out front saying their ministry was “a hand up, not a handout.” God forbid we appear to make sure someone has enough to make it through the day, just because they are part of our community. All of this speaks to where we place our value, and all of it is challenged by today’s Gospel.

The takeaway, then, is that in God’s economy, we do not earn our value. We don’t have to produce work to demonstrate our worth to society. God provides God’s grace for no reason other than because God chooses to. And we envy God’s generosity. We develop our own systems of assigning value, ones that inevitably favor our own interests, and we bristle at the notion that God’s grace operates on a much simpler principle.

But there is relief to be found in this as well. The notion that your work produces your value to the world is the source of so much of our insecurity and anxiety. How much are we consumed by jealousy of someone else’s wealth or success, or fear that we will not reach the goals you have set? How often do we beat ourselves up after an unproductive day? The shame cycle within our over-achiever society is driven by our society’s demand that we prove our worth through work. And we must prove our worth in contrast to others, a dynamic that casts them not as neighbors but as competitors, people out to get the wages that we want. Our exploitative ways come from our need to prove our value. 

Grace lets you off that hook. You are valued and beloved, simply because you are. You were created by a God who does not stop loving you and caring for you. And God does the same for each and every person. We were not created to be in a rat race. We were created to be in a household.

This story is sneaky. When you get down to it, it serves the landowner’s own interest to pay everyone a day’s wage. Those who don’t have enough to feed their families will either starve or move away, and then who would harvest the grapes? As a management strategy, you could say that paying each worker a day’s wage is a way of maintaining the community in which the landowner lives. With full capitalist cynicism intact, the grace of equal pay still makes some sense. 

But that would still be a pale shadow of the kingdom of heaven, for we would not delight in our neighbor’s wellness. Our challenge today is to see that our well-being is bound up with the well-being of each of our neighbors. We are asked to meet God’s grace with our own generosity of wealth and spirit. The last will be first, and the first will be last, and all are beloved members of the economy of God.


Counting To Seventy-Seven

Seventy seven times. That is how many times we are told to forgive someone who sins against us. And you get the distinct feeling that Jesus does not expect you to actually keep count. Seventy-seven just expands Peter’s suggestion of seven to a much greater extent. In practicality, Jesus instructs Peter to forgive whenever he has the chance. Seven times, you can keep track of. Seventy-seven… the point is that you’ll lose count. Easy enough, in theory.

But then the slave parable starts and things get more complex. Here is my standard disclaimer that the Bible’s discussion of slavery is uncomfortable. I don’t see  it as Jesus endorsing slavery. He was a “freedom to the captive” kind of guy. I see him using a metaphor his disciples would understand. One that rightly makes us uncomfortable.

The parable begins with a king who wants to settle accounts with his slaves. One slave owed the king ten thousand talents, which is an unfathomably large amount of money. It is roughly 60 million days’ wages for a laborer. 164,000 years’ wages. It is practically impossible that a slave could owe someone that much money. Like the seventy-sevenfold forgiveness, it’s not a realistic number. It’s a number that is chosen to exceed comprehension.

So then the king’s forgiveness of the debt, which is analogous to God’s forgiveness of our sins, is a release from something that the slave could never work his way out of. So massive is this debt that it is practically infinite. What I’m saying is that this didn’t really happen. The story exists to teach. The slave’s only path to freedom was forgiveness. He cannot possibly earn it under the terms of the agreement. The agreement will have to be set aside out of compassion. He is free by grace. It is an inconceivable turn of events.

And so, when that slave turns around and demands that another slave pay the 100 denarii that he owes him and then has him imprisoned when he cannot pay, the king is dismayed. 100 denarii is 100 days’ wages. A chunk of money, but fathomable. The slave who has just been granted freedom from a crushing debt load can surely overlook a 100 denarii debt, but chooses not to. He chooses not to extend the same grace he has been granted.

Let me suggest, then, that today’s Gospel teaches us a spiritual practice. You could, I suppose, start counting the times you forgive somebody and stop at seventy-seven. That would be the very literal response to this passage. But I think forgiveness as a conscious act is a pathway to grace.

I’ll explain. What is it that compells the king in the parable to free the slave? It is his plea “have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” There is a moment there of actual personal connection, across the economic divide and the enormous gap in power and status that separates these two men. The king sees the slave as a man who is completely vulnerable.

This is not our first reflex. When someone owes us money, we are prone to regard them as that sum of money. When someone has sinned against us, we are prone to regard them as that sin. To see them as more than a debt, more than a sin, we need intentionality. Instincts aren’t enough, and we need to learn to see people’s humanity on purpose. And that is what the practice of forgiveness allows us. It is a thing we do on purpose. We set out to forgive someone, and that posture, that intention to forgive, makes the human connection possible.

Of course, forgiveness is not easy. People endure profound trauma at the hands of others. People do things for which they do not, by any reasonable system, deserve forgiveness. And people feel pain that we should not ask them to overlook or set aside out of some sense of moral piety.

So what then, of forgiveness in the most painful situations? I think that the suffering we feel when we have been harmed and cannot forgive is in fact the torture promised at the end of the passage. 

In the parable, the king locks up the slave he had forgiven, so he may be tortured until he pays back the debt. It is a parable, and was never understood to be a true story. When we carry the pain of having been hurt or demeaned or neglected, it is real suffering. When that pain is held inside, either because we cannot figure out how to do anything else with it or because we choose to harbor it, it colors the rest of our experience. Bitterness begets bitterness. We carry shame that we are victims, that we have been taken advantage of. 

Forgiveness can interrupt these cycles of shame. But it takes practice. God freely forgives us of our sins. They are that debt we could not pay back. And yet we are forgiven. And our attachment to the eye-for-an-eye ways of the world keep us from really internalizing that forgiveness. 

Forgiveness has a strange logic to it. It isn’t numerical. Instead of settling the score or collecting the debt, forgiveness decides to erase the board. It feels, like so many things that have divinity behind them, foolish. It feels weak, especially if we are hurting. To not seek vengeance is, in the eyes of our culture, weak. And yet, it is the only path to freedom.

The decision to forgive does, it is true, free someone from their indebtedness to us. At least if they can accept the forgiveness. And it is also true that they have not, strictly speaking, earned that freedom. But debt creates cycles of debt, and forgiveness can create cycles of forgiveness. A person who has been forgiven, and who is serious about it, has their outlook changed. They can choose, as the slave in the story should have, to perpetuate forgiveness.

Whether they do that or not, the person who forgives is free also. You are free from the self-imposed need to exact repayment or vengeance. These are things that imprison your spirit as you hold tight, in a defensive crouch, to your pain and your offendedness. 

I want to be clear that we honor pain and the offense others have caused. Even as we work to forgive, we do not forget. Forgiveness is not a return to how things were before. Forgiveness is not a return, but a letting go, so that things can start to move forward. 

It’s hard work. In the Bible, forgiveness happens in a few short lines, but underneath them is transformation and grace and people confronting things within themselves that are incredibly hard to confront. God, through forgiving us, allows us to not be imprisoned by our past, and also models for us a way of choosing not let the past entirely determine our future. 

Through forgiveness, we choose to search for the path of grace, first and foremost by recognizing that we can choose what we do with our pain. Working through these tangled emotions, gradually untangling the knot, is the process of forgiveness. As we unravel our pain, we unravel our shame. In learning to forgive, we learn to forgive ourselves as well. We learn to free ourselves from the prison we put ourselves in.

This, I know, is a lot. The possibilities that God opens up with grace can be overwhelming, especially if we are already feeling overwhelmed. Hence the wisdom of the simple practice. Forgive seven times. Then forgive seventy-seven time. Forgiveness is not saying, “I want to be your best friend now,” much less is it “those things that hurt me never happened.” Forgiveness is saying “God chooses not to bind either of us to what you did, and I am working to choose the same.” It is not glamorous, and it will not make you rich. But it can make you free to love with all your heart, which is what God created you to be.


Hearing Into Truth

The church does not always do a good job talking about sin. I am, of course, part of the church. Sin is a complex thing, and if we are going to do a good job discussing it, it’s going to take a while. It is as complex as human relationships themselves, and rarely can it be laid out like a line in the sand. But there are lots of complex topics in the world and there is only so much time, and people often just want to be told how to behave, so they can be good. Give us some rules!

The church has historically happily obliged. Long lists of forbidden practices emerged, often with precious little theology to back up some of the rules. And that sufficed for a conversation about sin. “Here are the things you shouldn’t do, so that you don’t piss off God. Because you know what happens to people who piss off God.” This is religious adherence motivated by self-interested fear. Fear of getting in trouble. And it very quickly turns into self-loathing once you’ve broken one of the rules. And everyone breaks the rules. Even—often especially—the people who write them.

Our rush to make rules serves us poorly. Leave aside for today the fact that the rules aren’t always good rules. Leave it aside not because it doesn’t matter, but because sin is complex and today’s Gospel leads us to another aspect of it. We will revisit those unjust rules. I promise.

Once a sin has been committed, then what?

That, it turns out, is our blind spot. Sin hurts people. We have long known, for example, that racism is a sin, but we are just beginning to fathom the depths of the suffering it creates. That’s the difference between the Civil Rights act of 1964, which is a rule, and the protests of 2020, which give voice to the ongoing pain caused by sin that the aformentioned rule did not stop. A sin which had caused wounds before 1964 that our polite society is still squeamish to acknowledge.

Once a sin has been committed, then what? The Bible talks about forgiveness, but a counsel toward forgiveness, if you aren’t careful, really just aids and abets the one committing the sin. Forgiveness without complexity leads to advice to to stay in abusive relationships, and the to expectation that the sins of our racist history could be erased with a simple act of forgiveness, even while they are still being committed. 

The expectation is that good Christians forgive. And we turn the rest over to the justice system. But the wounds have not been treated. The trauma has not been honored. God’s love for those who have been hurt has not been fiercely proclaimed. Their dignity and right to safety and freedom and opportunity has not been righteously named. God does not do those things for us. God does them through us.

So today’s Gospel is about reconciliation in three easy steps! Sort of! “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” You don’t need me to explain how this works. We won’t spend much time on the protocol. Talk to the person. If that doesn’t work, talk to them in a group setting. If that doesn’t work, bring it before the whole community. If that doesn’t work, it is not your responsibility to make it work.

The process is pretty simple. But the word “listen” is doing sacred work. “If the member listens to you” is the standard for authentic participation in the process. “If you are not listened to” is the standard for not participating. So then the real operative action, the one that allows space for some healing to take place, is the hearing of the one who has been sinned against. 

Sin damages the integrity of our relationships. If I do not take your interests into consideration, and act toward you in a way that disregards both God’s love for you and the love I am called to have for you, then our relationship is surely harmed. And damaged relationships harm us. 

The first step in reconciliation, then, is to actually hear the one who has been harmed, to become aware of their pain, and to let their voice interrupt our self-concern. This is how we tend to a relationship.

Jesus is not being glib. He knows it is not that simple. Many wounds are viciously deep, and many people are unwilling to look clearly at the harm caused by their own actions. If even the witness of the whole community does not compel them to listen, Jesus says to let them “be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

But Gentiles and tax collectors are peculiar categories to choose, no? It’s important to notice that those are people Jesus ministered to. So while he gives us permission to let ourselves off the hook for reconciling with those who are not actually repentant, it’s also clear that those people are not beyond God’s grace and God’s love. We still hold out hope for them. And we learn to recognize when we cannot be the ones to bring them back.

But the radical thing about this passage is that it is not centered on the one who has sinned. The rules actually fade into the background. This is centered on the one who suffers, who has been hurt by someone. This passage is centered on the one who is denied love. Who is disregarded. The kid who is bullied. The worker who is not paid fairly. The woman who is abused. The person who has to work twice as hard for the same opportunities some of us walk right into because we were born in the right place.  This passage is centered on the one whose ability to tell their own story was denied or compromised. God speaks to those whose relationships have let them down.

And God says, “I hear you. I see you.” The Gospel says to anyone who has been knocked down that their voice not only matters, but it is the most important voice in the movement toward the Kingdom of God. It is not enough to stop the sin. The pain that the sin has caused must be seen and tended to.

Abuse and oppression cause spirals of shame in those they impact. Cycles of sin unfold  as a default within sinful structures. It is easy to believe you are not worth very much when the people who should be looking out for you are constantly telling you aren’t worth very much. To the ones who bear the pain of other people’s sin, God says, “you deserve to be heard.” 

The theologian Nelle Morton talked about the radical value of being listened to within the experience of women whose difficult stories were often repressed and covered over with shame. Gathering to tell their stories, stories they had not told before because the telling was too difficult, too tender, too raw, these women found that the gathered listeners empowered the telling of the story. One woman said to the group, “I have a strange feeling you heard me before I started. You heard me to my own story.” Morton’s story helps us see how hearing becomes active, carving out a space for speech we had previously foreclosed with our own actions.

God hears us before we speak, and hears each and every person to their own story. Too often, we talk about rules broken, commandments given, as though life is simply a matter of obeying God’s plain and simple speech. As though God only speaks. Nelle Morton argued that the power of listening, and God’s insistence on hearing each voice, makes God not only the one who speaks, but “the hearing one” as well. When truth is spoken, it is because we have been heard into speech. This is the basis for our community, and it is the basis for our healing.


Divine Things During Crisis

The separation of church and state is tricky business. There are people within Christianity who will argue that the sacred is the business of the church and the secular is the business of everything else. The separation was meant to protect the freedom and diversity of religion from state persecution, but some would apply it literally to everything. There are people who argue that a Christian shouldn’t vote, because our attention should be on the sacred, not on secular processes. There are those who would read Jesus’s admonition today to Peter, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” and see it as an endorsement of this point of view. You can, of course, quote the Bible in exceedingly small pieces. 

Now, if you know me a little bit, you know I don’t believe that. If you are new to the EC, hi. I’m Sam. I don’t believe that stuff. I don’t endorse candidates or parties. I won’t tell you how to vote. That is your job. What we are about is bigger than those divisions. But—you knew a “but” was coming—I do think you should vote, and I believe that your faith informs your values and actions everywhere, just as it did for the disciples in this paragraph of Matthew’s gospel. Because, you see, faith turns your view of the world inside out.

Jesus tells the disciples that he will go to Jerusalem, be persecuted and killed, and will then rise again. This is the thing Peter wants to avoid. He does not want to see his friend and mentor executed, even if it is for the kingdom’s causes. This is the thing Jesus insists must happen. This is the thing that advances heavenly goals, while being an atrocity by earthly standards. The crucifixion was a political execution carried out because Jesus disrupted the political order, and that is the thing that Jesus insists needs to happen. Jesus needed to question the political order in order to do divine work.

When people use the “set your mind on divine things” line, or other quotes like “your treasure awaits in heaven” to try to hold back those who would speak truth to power and reveal the injustices in our world, they are operating from a place of great privilege. It is a great privilege to feel as though the world is bearable. It is a great privilege to feel that the status quo is reasonably fair. It is a great privilege to go through your day without worrying about being shot by those who are sworn to protect you. I don’t say this to shame those who feel this way. Most don’t realize they are doing it. But this is not a religion or a spirituality of the status quo.

Christianity, at its core, is a religion that speaks to the suffering of the world. Christianity speaks to the experience of the secular, of poverty, of oppression, of violence, and of insecurity. Much of its beauty, yes, is in how it teaches us to cultivate an inner peace that is not determined by the outward affairs of the world. But the inward experience of God is not an an opiate against suffering. It does not numb us. It emboldens us. The inward experience of God is our source of courage.

The very next thing Jesus said after “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” was this: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And man, that line has got some teeth. It involves both our inward faith and our outward action.

“Let them deny themselves…” this is important, and a little delicate. What does it mean to deny yourself? As one who lives with depression, there is a dark edge to the term self-denial. But the self-erasure that people envision when in the depths of depression is a far cry from the affirmation of life that Jesus calls us to. The self-denial today’s passage points us toward, instead of stemming from self-loathing, draws its energy from our awareness of God’s love. The self-denial comes as we realize that we are held in relationship with the rest of the creation by God’s love, and that this is the context for our identity. We exist only in sacred community. Our attachment to our privilege can fall away once we see it as a barrier to God’s love. To plug my ears when someone calls names injustice is to try to stop God’s love. Self-denial is, in fact, less giving something up and more an embrace of what is true.

After denying themselves, these followers of Christ take up their crosses and follow Jesus. Now, you know, just by considering the idea, that people in 1st century Palestine did not carry crosses around with them. Why would they? A cross is a large and unuseful tool. You cannot build houses with it. You cannot catch fish with it. It has, really, just the one use. You get nailed to it and die a very painful, very public, very shameful death. It is perhaps an ancient analogue to being shot in the back 7 times in front of your children.

So then this passage is uncomfortable. To pretend it isn’t would be to to deceive ourselves. I don’t love to preach this kind of sermon, especially right at the start of the school year. This isn’t “welcome to college” material! 

But I don’t think I can not preach it. Following Jesus means reckoning with death. When Peter’s mind was set on human things, it was working from a fear of death and loss. That is the logic of crucifixion. It scares us. The crucifixion was very, very human. Jesus’ ministry, carried out in the knowledge that crucifixion would be the consequence, was divine. That is, Jesus defined life by divine standards, and the logic of crucifixion no longer won out. To set your mind on divine things is to redefine what it means to live. Peter is afraid of loss and afraid of death. I know exactly how he feels. And Jesus shows that being aware of the divine means that loss and death should no longer govern us.

As Jesus says, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” The “don’t make any waves” approach to Christianity simply will not do. 

This week, Jacob Blake was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was shot, in the back, 7 times. His children witnessed it. This is a grievous sin. He did not die, somehow, but his name joins our shameful litany of black lives treated as disposable in our society. My society. Your society.

My preaching will not fix it, and I am not sure what will. 

But it is time to set our mind on divine things. 

Jacob Blake is entirely beloved of God, exactly as human and sacred as anyone else. And that is divine, for Genesis tells us that all people are created in God’s image. You know this, but we can apparently forget.

Not killing is divine. It is—and this is another thing we can apparently forget—a commandment. “You shall not kill.” Carve it in stone.

Civil disobedience is divine, for Jesus said, in the greatest sermon ever preached, “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In the end, then, this passage does not ask us to distinguish our life with God from our life in the world. It presents us with a chance to let the former transform the latter. When we find God in our life, we see the world differently, and the world holds less authority over us. I urge you—I actually beg you— to let your spiritual experiences and values shape your life. As you find your way through the world, know that your value is spoken for and assured, and that the rules of the world do not delineate a life well-lived. Come here for comfort, for solace, for community, and to be challenged. That inward grounding in God’s love equips you to be the people our very human world desperately needs.


Jesus Amidst the Monuments

I think you need to know where this Gospel takes place if you want to interpret it.. 

It used to be called Baal Gad, a place of worship to the Canaanite god of good fortune. Then Alexander the Great conquered the area and the site became known as Paneas, and a temple was built to Pan, the Greek god of wilderness and shepherds and their flocks.

The Romans took the area in the first century BCE, and King Herod built a temple to the emperor there. His son, Phillip, about 15 years before today’s story, would go ahead and name the city after the emperor. 

There were a couple of towns called Caesarea in the area, so the Bible calls this one Caesarea Philippi to distinguish it from the other one, which is on the Mediterranean Sea. Towns called Caesarea are named after the emperor, Caesar. Of course it was not the locals who named it after the emperor. It was the Roman officials. “Look what I’ve done, sir! There was this town, and now it is named after you!”

The people of this place saw a lot of nations come in and mark it as theirs by making it a focal point of their religion. The temples would have been prominently in view. Here stand the monuments of the layers of empire that have ruled over the people of Israel.

So, you see, this was not just another town that Jesus and his disciples had walked into. It was a place where the concept of power, both secular and sacred, was being publically negotiated and demonstrated. Around the time Jesus would have been there, coins with the emperor’s face on them were minted to commemorate his legacy as demonstrated in the city.

Once they have arrived, Jesus asks the disciples a pretty loaded question. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” You could imagine him looking at the Greek temple, the Roman temple, maybe seeing a coin and filing it away as a symbol he could refer to later, and thinking that this is a good time to talk about power and authority.

As it turned out, there were lots of ideas about who the Son of Man is. The people of Israel, having lived as a conquered people for centuries, were actively looking for one who might be their champion. But Jesus knew that. He wasn’t really interested in the answer, so much as in the contrast between what the people are saying and what his disciples are saying. 

Simon Peter tells him, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Here, amidst the temples, in a town named for the emperor, Simon Peter names Jesus as the messiah, the long awaited one whose authority transcends that of any emperor.

Jesus praises him, and makes it clear that this truth has not been revealed to Peter by humans, but by God. He calls him Peter, from the Greek Petros, for “rock,” and promises to build the church upon him. Indeed, we trace the authority in our church back to this connection through Peter.

But let’s stay in this moment, in Caesarea Philippi, with the temples and the coins and the motley travelling party where Jesus has just been declared the Messiah. It is not so different than the 21st century. We are residents of the global empire of our time, and we are in a cultural moment where the way we publically mark our history and our values is very much under dispute.

What is the focus on our statues and monuments if not a debate about how we tell the story of our place?

Our coins and bills have faces on them, and several of those men owned slaves. They also made essential contributions to the founding of our country. They will not fit into a simple portrayal. The Romans were proud of their emperor and their empire, but to the Israelites, the temple and the town were reminders that their oppressor was much more powerful than them.

The point of this Gospel’s naming of Jesus’ authority in Caesarea Philippi is not that he intends to compete with the emperor for secular authority. He didn’t. He was killed by the empire. 

Ironically, it was a Roman emperor who later gave Christianity a public legitimacy that changed its history in ways good and bad. The kingdom of God emerges right here in the world, in the midst of all our tangled relationality. The kingdom of God comes to us in the middle of this, but it does not come to endorse this. Marble monuments stand for centuries and eventually crumble, but the frail humans gathered near them were opening up a space for something eternal and beautiful to come forth. 

That is what we do here at the Episcopal Center. We follow in the footsteps of this gathering in Caesarea, opening ourselves up to the movements of a God whose loves puts everything else in the world into perspective. There are layers of authority on this campus. Political, economic, cultural. And God’s love transcends every one of them. We are the same church whose cornerstone was layed on Peter’s shoulders that day. That church has also built a lot of monuments on other people’s land, and we are not uncritical of that.

This doesn’t mean we do not participate in the structures that envelop us. We do. Or that we are above all of this. We are not. We are in it and of it, but we can hear the calling of something more than this, something that runs against the grain of the world and yet also unleashes a remarkable love within it.

At the Episcopal Center, we know that our outward actions reflect our inward spirit. We know that our faith, our commitment to this way of living and this vision of transformation, is what grounds us and enables us to see with clarity. There is a peace in this place, in this life, in placing ourself in God’s hands. 

We center ourselves in that peace, and we help each other to find it. This community cares about one another in a way that is not an act. It is a genuine love, and it is a gift beyond measure.

We seek to share that peace. We work to help others know God’s love, and to make our world more equitable. We help feed people, we help rebuild after storms, and we help to reveal the structures in our world that treat some as more worthwhile than others. 

We believe that love is love, and that God loves each person as they were created. We believe the world has not learned to honor that truth. We will never pray for you to be anyone other than who you are.

This is not passive work. Despite the cultural embrace that Christianity has had over the centuries, to stand for the sacred value of each person is still countercultural. To set aside the pursuit of power and money in order to cultivate an inward peace is still, in the mainstream, rather foolish. Jesus told his disciples to keep quiet about his being the messiah. It was a dangerous position that could cut short his ministry. Blessedly, it is less dangerous today, and we will not keep quiet. The practices of our life together can center you and help you move through your time at Duke aware of a beauty and love that many people totally overlook.

Here at the Episcopal Center, Peter’s quiet declaration that day that Jesus is the messiah remains at the center of our life. His teachings and his example are our foundation. We follow them in moments of silence and in moments of holding the world accountable. We follow them when we agree and when our views differ. We follow them because they speak to the deepest truths woven into our creation. We follow them together.


A Revealing Stumble

There are some pretty serious currents of religiosity colliding in today’s passage. On one hand you have the Pharisees, and by now you likely know that the Pharisees are always set up to be wrong in the Gospels. Here, they are concerned with the minutae of keeping the Jewish law. In particular, they are disturbed that the disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat. Honestly, a fair concern. But the Pharisees are not concerned about disease transmission so much as tradition. The disciples, they say, are breaking the tradition of the elders.

On the other hand, you have Jesus, who is frustrated by this strain of religiosity that is more concerned with the ritual observance than with the spiritual movement behind it. The Jewish law was given as an observance of Israel’s covenant with God. That is, the practices it prescribes are meant to help the Israelites be mindful of their relationship with God. When the Pharisees fret about the disciples’ handwashing, or lack thereof, their concern is with the ways of the elders, not with what the unwashed hands might signify about the disciple’s dedication to God.

Or, as Jesus puts it, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what goes out of the mouth that defiles.” The law famously sets a lot of rules for what foods should be eaten and how they should be prepared, and how the people should prepare to eat. The argument Jesus appears to be making is that these precepts are not about some substantial impurity inherent in those foods, but rather about the value of the ritual for orienting people toward God. The value of our practices as people of faith is how they orient us toward God. Same goes for us. The Eucharist, or any sacrament we share, is not like activated charcoal for the soul, purifying us by some metaphysical charm. Instead, it invites a movement of the soul toward God. It invites us to move our souls toward God.

So you can tell more about someone’s relationship to God by what they say then by how they ritually mark that relationship, says Jesus. Pretty explicitly, too. Food passes through into the sewer, where as words come from the heart. The caution is always relevant. Rather than get all worked up because someone else worships differently or embraces a different set of practices than we do, we are instructed to seek to understand their heart. Difference is not a threat, and dissent is not evil. Our hearts can be aligned while the practices and language we use to signify that alignment varies widely.

The intentions of murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander…these are the things that defile us. These are the things we hope to find the strength to resist. But the strength doesn’t come because we prayed just right or ate just right or made all the gestures at the appointed time. The strength to choose what is good comes from recognizing that God’s power comes as compassion and vulnerability and truth, and that the illusions of power we construct for ourselves are feeble grasps at something we cannot give ourselves.

So it is more than a little offputting when, in the next paragraph, a Cannanite woman approaches Jesus, begging for help for her daughter, who is tortured by demons, which is of course the Bible’s not-so-charming-in-hindsight way of saying the daughter is struggling with a mental illness. That she is a Canaanite matters, because it means for the purposes of this story that she is essentially not white. She is not from the privilege-wielding culture in this particular scene. The disciples are annoyed by her and want Jesus to send her away. Jesus himself tells her “I was sent only to the the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” which is, to be honest, really very rude. He is basically saying, “I am not God for you, I am God for other people.”

Thank God the woman is persistent. Jesus is under a lot of pressure at this time, and in this moment it seems he may need someone to remind him who he is. “Lord, help me” she says. And he responds, “it is not fait to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This will go down as the cruelest thing Jesus says in any of the Gospels. He has just called this woman a dog. He who recently said that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out has just told a woman that having compassion for her would be like taking a child’s food and giving it to a dog.

This is, to put it mildly, a moment of significant inconsistency for Jesus. People will sometimes try to smooth this over, but I think it’s important to recognize. This moment matters. His humanity is pretty plain to see. So then this story pivots on what happens next. The Canaanite woman says “Yes, Lord” as though she agrees, which is kind of heartbreaking to hear, and then she goes on “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She has just reminded him that she, too, though not an Israelite, is reliant on the very same God. If her help will not come from Jesus, then where is her hope?

Jesus, son of God, the messiah, has just been called out by this Canaanite woman. She has shown that, though she is not an heir to Israel’s covenant, and though she may not participate in the particular culture it defines, her heart can seek God as truly as any other. It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out. By extension, it is not what goes into the mouth that makes one holy, it is what comes out.

Jesus sees that she is right. This is a huge moment. For all of the talk we hear of God’s unchangingness and how everything is planned from time immemorial, we see in this moment that compassion is not possible without a willingness to hear ourselves called out. Unbending adherence to a particular understanding of the world, any understanding of the world, will blind us to the sacred in our midst. Even Jesus needed to be reminded of that. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” You and I, and everyone else who came to faith through the mission to the Gentiles, can thank the Canaanite woman for her insistence that Jesus be who he came to be.

The underlying lesson is that the Spirit will always move in ways we do not anticipate, or which we are not prepared to see. It was true even for Jesus. The day-to-day ministry placed a lot of demands and a lot of stress and a lot of heartache on him. We can allow him a moment of unkindness, especially when it is followed by what I can only read as a moment of deep humility. 

The passage ends, then, on a consistent note. The strength to choose goodness, to choose compassion, doesn’t come from a certainty that our culture and practices are correct. It comes from the faith that the deepest power in our universe is God’s steady and insistent love for each person, with no exceptions. If our words and actions are guided by this spiritual truth, then we will surely walk with God.


Enough is a Miracle

  Jesus is not in the mood to face the crowds. It takes a lot of energy to be Jesus, to give of yourself and your energy and to face the demands of a crowd whose need for healing knows no end. Jesus has just gotten word that John the Baptist, who baptised him and prepared the way for his ministry, has been beheaded under the authority of Herod. The first verse of this passage is clipped by the lectionary, so you may not know that this is immediately after John’s death. In full, the verse reads “now when Jesus heard this he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” He seeks solitude because he grieves. This is a personal loss for Jesus, and perhaps a moment when the violence that awaits those who speak truth to power comes into clearer focus. 

So he retreats. Perhaps he seeks the clarity he found in his 40 days in the desert, galvanizing his resolve and his vision for ministry. In the face of John’s gruesome death, we could easily understand needing time to regather oneself. Perhaps it was pure grief. Compassion is the noblest and best virtue, but it’s absolutely exhausting, too. To care about people is to eventually grieve them, and Jesus cared very much about John the Baptist. 

Whatever his inner state, we can imagine Jesus was not thrilled to see the crowds coming down to the water. I’m going to run the risk of speaking for all of us and say we can imagine his exhausted sigh even more easily now, 4 months into our pandemic distancing. Each day’s news only seems to increase the grief and forestall the much-anticipated return to normalcy. Just a quick break from the constant virus anxiety would be so nice. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is hurt, and he wants a brief break from being the public-facing branch of the Trinity. But the crowds were relentless. Such is the suffering of the world.

Deep in my quarantine-weary bones, I yearn for Jesus to row close to shore, respectfully tell the crowd to come back later because he needs a nap, and row back out. But people needed healing. His compassion got him into this situation. So he healed them, and that’s the part that amazes me. All day, apparently, he healed them, for evening fell and the crowd was still gathered, here in this deserted place. 

Remember the mustard seed from last week, or better yet, the yeast that leavens bread. Unseeably small granules that as a collective breathe out and inflate loaves of bread. This is literal inspiration, the blowing-in of life from the tiniest corners of the creation. Jesus, one person amidst the crowds, is building the kingdom of God one person at a time. One touch, one kind word, one assurance that God sees and loves this particular life. Each healing another pocket of lightness, breathing the Spirit into God’s people, leavening the common life.

And so it is evening and they sit, in their multitude, here by the water in the deserted place with only two fish and five loaves. The disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds home, lest they go hungry, but he instead asks for the food to be brought to him. This is the familiar part, where Jesus somehow feeds the masses—five thousand men, plus women and children whom God numbered but the Bible didn’t—let’s say ten thousand people, a little more than Cameron Indoor holds, with two fish and five loaves. 

It is not just a magic trick. This is an expression of the way of God’s abundance. Bread, the most fundamental of foods, is usually involved in these things. Think of the manna in the desert, bread falling from the sky. Think of the last supper and our ongoing observance of it in our Eucharistic feast. The loaves and fishes are infinitesimal compared to the material hunger of the people gathered, but the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed or like baker’s yeast, and somehow, the food is enough. When all had eaten, the leftovers filled 12 baskets. The small dinner became a manifestation of abundance. All were filled, and there was still more.

I urge you not to spend too long wondering about the exact mechanics of the feat. The Bible is not much of a technical manual. Instead, notice the extremes of scale. Jesus and the crowds. Five loaves, two fishes, and ten thousand hungry souls. The seed and the plant, the yeast and the bread. It was an instance of the kingdom of God. Jesus and the food were too small in the face of the need, and yet they were enough.

Our fatigue in this season is well-earned. It has been a hard year. It has been a hot summer. We are becoming more and more aware of the injustices in our society and of our failures to contain the COVID pandemic. As a parent and a campus minister, my life is shaped on two major fronts by the decisions of schools, and I feel rather powerless in the face of it. Things happen, and I make tentative plans to deal with them until the next thing happens. Trying to connect with incoming students and care for returning students is real work in reasonable times, and it feels like playing frisbee in a hurricane right now.

I am—and I bet you are, too—in a particularly good place to resonate with the smallness and fragility of the mustard seed or the yeast cell. If there is one thing worth highlighting about the kingdom of heaven this week, let me submit that it is that in the face of monolithic forces like injustice and hunger and suffering, the kingdom of heaven comes as one person at a time, one seed, one cell at a time, and it is somehow sufficient. Jesus was enough for the day. The food was enough for the evening.

And by God, we are enough for the present moment. None of us are called, on any particular day, to singlehandedly turn the tide of the pandemic. None will achieve racial justice alone. That’s not how things work. We are called to make it through each day and to risk getting our hearts broken. The most impressive part of the story, to me, comes when Jesus had compassion for the crowd amidst his own grief. His sufficiency was a given. His presence was a miracle. The kingdom of heaven is sufficient. Jesus’ willingness to extend the kingdom of heaven to the crowds is amazing. 

Jesus was willing to let the world be the world and to care for the people in front of him. That he did until the end, and that we can practice. When the scope of things, the very bigness of our problems, paralyzes or numbs you, you can follow the example of Jesus. You are enough. The Spirit moves through you, and through those you love, and though you cannot fix every problem you touch, you are enough for today,. You will be enough for tomorrow. You are like the mustard seed, like the microscopic yeast. Great things unfold downstream of the small ripples we make today. To find the energy to answer the call each day is the true spiritual task of these times. The practice of compassion, of sharing God’s love, is enough, and will see us through. Love will suffice.


The Kingdom of Metaphors

You can’t just speak directly about God as though you know exactly what God is. Whenever we use a word, we are appealing to a reasonably agreed-upon connection between that word and something in the world. An apple, we can all agree, is a fruit that grows on a tree. Maybe you pictured a red on and I pictured a green one when I used the word, but we were both picturing things the other we agree are apples. Apples fit in your hand. We can recognize them easily. 

Most words work like that. There is an object or action or quality in the world that we signify with a word. It’s not perfect, not a 100% solid system, but it’s the basis of communication; symbols that signify things commonly experienced. 

But when we talk about God, especially about the nature of God, our words get slippery and falter, and the signification is far less direct. Jesus is talking today about the kingdom of heaven—three words we recognize that added together signify a thing beyond our comprehension. 

The kingdom of heaven is not an object. It is not a country nearby, or even a bygone historical territory. Inasmuch as it is a kingdom, and the Greek here does translate to kingdom, it has a king. But we get lost when we try to compare God to any kings we experience in our kingdoms, and we also risk getting hung up on the masculinity of a king for whom neither male nor female are useful descriptors. God operates through an inversion of power as we know it, through compassion and weakness and hospitality. There is no reference point in our experience for the kingdom of heaven. It is an altogether foreign place. And also, it’s not a place. It’s an always inbreaking reality. Again, our words can only take us so far.

The kingdom of heaven also must involve heaven, something we think about an awful lot and know very little about. We today probably picture angels on clouds with harps, but there we are just repeating culturally pervasive imagery without much biblical basis.

The kingdom of heaven, as a term, is tremendously appealing, and also incredibly imprecise, because we don’t have an agreed-upon set of objects to anchor those words to. There aren’t words to describe the reality God is seeking to describe, because we can only use words to refer to things we know about. Jesus stands astride the gap between the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the limits of our language. So Jesus turns to metaphor, using known imagery to evoke some truth about God’s kingdom.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Farmers hated mustard plants. They were undesirable weeds. How much mustard do you think people really needed anyway. So for all of it’s glorious shrubbiness from such a small seed, it is hardly a blessing. And yet it bursts through and offers homes for the birds, a piece of beauty if you look at it right, but not quite what you had wanted, either.

It’s like yeast, which leavened bread. Understanding that yeast are individual fungi (and bacteria too, if you’re talking wild fermentation, which we almost certainly are, is a very recent historical phenomenon. You have to have a microscope to see yeast. So for most of history, the leavening of bread and fermentation of wine and beer were processes with a great element of mystery. They were predictable, and people knew what they were doing, but I’ve read of breweries where great reverence was taken for the spirits in the place, which were responsible for the fermentation. And so again, the kingdom of heaven is not entirely understood in its substance, but by its effects. It leavens and lifts and enlivens, while remaining itself a mystery.

The kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field, which compels the one who found and hid it to buy the field. Again, this small part of the scene, the treasure, has the ability to transform what is around it, to raise the value of the land itself.

Or a merchant. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who sells all he has to buy one particular one. It doesn’t just expand things, it also pours all of its value into each part of itself. Each speck of the kingdom carries the full value of the kingdom, just as each part of the universe greets the full presence of God.

The kingdom is like a net that gathers fish, which are judged by the fishermen. The kingdom is comprehensive, but not uncritical. It is not passive, and while each part of it is infinitely valuable, it also radiates its influence and purifies all within it. 

In other words, the kingdom of heaven is transformation. It subjects every part of the world to its evaluation and redistribution of what is precious and sacred. It not only build up new things, but also tears down and casts out old things that cannot accomodate it. 

The disciples said that they understood, but I’m thinking they wanted to look like good students. This is a lot of metaphors stacked on top of one another, moving in different directions, with the clarity and harsh reality of judgment at the end. I’m pretty sure I don’t understand, but I feel it moving.

I may not be able to tell you exactly what the kingdom of heaven is, and I sure couldn’t give you a technical description, but there is so much potential energy in all of these metaphors, that you can almost feel the creation bursting at the seams. The seed and the yeast unlock energy in the elements around them, producing outsized results. The treasure and the pearl seem to bend reality to their contours, releasing the accumulated wealth of lifetimes to have just this one thing. The net raises the teeming life of the sea to our sight, makes it visible and tangible.

I invite you then, to try encountering the world as potential, as energy pent up and awaiting the freedom of the kingdom of heaven. It’s glorious to imagine God turning all of this inside out and upside down and revealing glories within it that we don’t even know how to dream about.  

And notice, as you see the world as potential, that the world as it is right now, looks more beautiful. If, as Paul said, the creation groans with labor pains carrying forth the new life of the kingdom of heaven, we also see a dynamism in it, and we begin to see real value that we had overlooked. Beneath the surface of life, or in the little corners where we hardly ever look, a new world is constantly surging forward. May we, following Jesus, nurture the things that are even now becoming real.


Let us…

Out of that whole first reading, I’m picking just a couple of verses:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.”

There’s honestly too much in those verses for one sermon. So I want to offer a meditation on one facet of them tonight. First, we’re going to dispense with the idea that this first chapter of the Bible is a technical discussion of the week the universe was created. It is not. What we have on our hands is a poetic text, a text that evokes a truth about the nature of things and about our relationship with God. It is a creation myth, meant to explain why things are the way they are. It does that without competing with the processes science describes to us.

So what’s going on with the word “us” hanging there? When God created the light or the land or the plants and animals, God said, “let there be…” but here, when God creates people, it’s “let us make.” Is it an artifact from one of the other cultures in the middle east with similar creation stories, a sort of vestige of this story’s origin in a polytheistic tradition? I mean, probably. The Bible always emerges in context.

But the “us” is also a signifier of divine multiplicity. The “us” suggests that God could have a conversation with Godself, speaking within the divine household as an “us” while still cohering as a unity to be referred to with the singular and capitalized “God.” Is this an embedded prefiguring of the doctrine of the Trinity, which would emerge centuries later? That’s a real stretch. The Trinitarian model is a product of a very different time and place. 

But the mystery of divine plurality hangs in the air, productively breaking apart any notions of divine simplicity, right here at the start. And watch as this divine multiplicity becomes human multiplicity, for humankind is made “in our image, according to our likeness.” Not little miniature Gods are we, like souvenir Statues of Liberty, but we are created in the image and likeness of something that is mysteriously multiple. God did not create with a rubber stamp.

Difference is encoded in at the very beginning. There never was a singular understanding of what humanity looked like. The differences come from God because God is not simple. To be created in God’s image is not simple.

This difference has confounded us ever since. If I am made in God’s image and so are you, how can we be so different? How can we look so different? How can we bring such different understandings and experiences to bear on the world if we are all cut from the same cloth? The answer is, “us.” 

Today being Trinity Sunday, we honor the divine multiplicity, the experience of God as Godhead and as Incarnate One and as Holy Spirit. Today being June 7th, 2020, we do well to honor our creation in the image of one who we have always experienced as also somehow plural. We are created in multiple images and likenesses and they are all equaly of God, without conflict.

What this means is that when we encounter someone we encounter difference, a gap between their experience and ours that cannot be fully closed, no matter how much we listen. This is the nature of our creation. 

And we are sent, in today’s passage from the very end of Matthew, to baptize people of all the nations, which kind of feels like the resolution of all of our differences, a soothing future sameness that will fix the tensions of the world. Except that we are to baptize them in a particular way, in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. There’s that multiplicity again. Even our idealistic unity has difference built into it.

The lesson, it seems, is that difference is not to be resolved. Difference can create tension, but it also creates motion. It is the source of wind, of breath, of streams and of rivers. The early Christians understood the members of the Trinity to be constantly in motion around one another, a dynamic trinitarian unity, and they coined the Greek word “perichoresis” to describe this motion around one another. Perhaps they process. Perhaps they dance. Perhaps it is something altogether more strange.

Difference and unity are not contradictory, but we humans need the nudge to look for something deeper than sameness. God’s movement in Godself does not erase the identities of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and God’s movement in the world does not erase the distinctions between people, between cultures, and between viewpoints.

So then we are challenged to look one another in the eye and not to look for a humanity just like ours, but for the edges of one another’s mystery. We are challenged to recognize the unknowability of another’s inner experience as the image of God. Just sit with that for a second, because we have to be intentional about it. The differences among us in fact describe the face of  God, the outer edge of something we cannot ever claim as ours, but which is also part of us. 

To honor the mysterious otherness of each person we encounter, especially when the differences between us unsettle us and challenge is, is to honor God, because we are created in God’s likeness, in their likeness. 

I don’t want to put this out there as a liberal band-aid, a hashtag that will spackle over the chasms and wounds in our society. This theology does not solve racial tension, and even less will it compensate for our ongoing history of oppressing people of color. It is, I think, at best, a practice that can help us to think more broadly. It is an intentional setting aside of our assumptions and conditioning—at least some of it—so that we might see God. God is everywhere, in everyone, but we so often assume God will appear in our own image. 

But it is never so simple. To be created in the image of God is to be part of a vast and irreducible complexity. Our embrace of our own creation comes from honoring the mystery with which each person is created. God is in our differences.


Breath and Fire

Like a wind it sounded. Like a rush of violent wind. In the middle of the city, the sound came down and filled the houses. Impossible to ignore. Likely unwelcome, the sound came anyway. Divided tongues of fire appeared among the disciples, who had seen a lot but were surely terrified. In the midst of the city, accompanying the roaring wind of God’s breath which is sometimes whisper and sometimes whirlwind, divided tongues of flame rested on the disciples. They did not burn as fuel in a furnace, but as the ignition source for something new in the land. The wind fanned the tongues of flame, and the disciples gave off not smoke but words; words which became by God’s presence the Word. The wind capitalized the W.

Witness the grand arrival of the Advocate, the teacher, the comforter, the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus. She has been seen in fire before, a pillar of flame guiding the Israelites across the wind-parted Red Sea to freedom and before that as a burning bush calling Moses to go and lead them. A wind pushes things, perhaps topples them, but fire consumes and transforms, releases energy from fixed structures and sets it free. The Spirit, never tamed and never docile, may be wind, but may also be fire.

In the city there were Jewish people from all over, a—lets be sure to name it—wildly diverse community gathered at the center of Jewish life. The story of Jesus had been told, one presumes, in Aramaic, the language he and his disciples would have spoken, perhaps bleeding into the koine Greek and Latin of Palestine’s multivalent history. Yet when the fire came down and the disciples began to speak, their words were set free to be understood by people from all the lands. The words, as the Word, leapt over barriers and moved, guided, pushed these peoples toward transformation.

Some thought they were drunk, and who can blame them? But Peter, for once not needing to have things explained to him, recognized the flames and the wind, and reminded them of the bone-deep poetry of the prophet Joel:

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.

Words by this time already anciently embedded in the fabric of the Jewish world, a Hebraic promise of a more perfect union between God and God’s people. The flames call forth words, which are themselves nothing more than carefully shaped breath. Sons and daughters prophesying, young men telling of their visions and old men of their dreams and even the slaves speaking God’s truth. The Holy Spirit, an Advocate calling God’s people to advocate for God’s dream, summoning us with our very breath to proclaim what is good and true and just. The Spirit equips us to say in every realm that the kingdom of God is not a nation or a tribe, but something more like this polyglot collective sending rhizomes of story out from Jerusalem.

But one cannot speak without breath. No words come from windpipes with knees on them. To kneel on the throat and stop the breath, the ruach, the pneuma. To squelch the words that trouble tribal supremacies and interrogate imperial narratives. This has been the counter-strategy chosen by those in power against the Spirit’s every step. Pogroms, inquisitions and cleansings, and—more suitable for polite company—segregations and disenfranchisements. The broad scattering of words at the Pentecost is everywhere reined in and silenced by those with narrower imaginations. George Floyd’s neck, in this vast machinery, was just one more, a candle pinched out between calloused fingers, like so many others who had no video recording to remember their truth.

And yet George Floyd speaks. His words are heard and understood, and the crowds have come to help, to turn the whisper into a roaring wind. Make no mistake, the Holy Spirit moves in this anger, this defiant refusal to be silent. She moves as wind, giving breath to those who hold our society to the standard it claims to have set for itself, to its own now-ancient prophecies of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And there are fires. I have preached about non-violence before, and I believe in it to my core. I am not here to compare the flames this week to the flames at Pentecost. But the fires in cities around the country should not be dismissed as thuggery or mob rule. They are eruptions of rage, signifying that centuries of enslavement, lynchings, terrorism, the torching of black towns, churches, and and homes by white people, segregation, and police violence have understandably eroded any trust that our society actually cares about George Floyd’s life. A society that segregates and controls people through violence cannot, with any integrity, demand peace in response. Nonviolence is a very difficult practice. Do not glorify the flames, do not praise them, do not let them obscure the thousands and thousands of peaceful protestors, but do not fail to understand where the flames come from. They will not bring peace, but they are responses in kind to a violent society. Flames out of our control frighten us, but they get our attention. The Spirit speaks in all of this.

I do not think I’m out on a limb here. Note the rest of Peter’s quotation from Joel. The Spirit sometimes reveals through terrifying means.

And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

When the Spirit moved out in every direction from Jerusalem that day, she would never be contained. There will never be only one voice. There will never be only one narrative. There will never be only one perspective. The ability to control the message, to master the news-cycle, was lost from the drop. “But racism is illegal and the legal system should take care of it” will never be an adequate response to oppression that was legal for so long that the latecoming laws against it could hardly slow it down. Voices still speak truth from perspectives we resist, and the Spirit still calls us to hear, and to be transformed. The fires still burn.

She is then, only sometimes a comforter. The Holy Spirit unsettled the neat narrative of Jesus that a committee of a few disciples might have crafted. Christianity has never spoken with one voice. This is not a design flaw in our faith. It is the insistence that our proclamation of God’s movement should always strive to mirror the complexity of the world. And it is a persistent reminder that the Holy Spirit is not beholden to our convenience or to the status quo. A whisper, a shout, a breeze, tongues of flame, the Word moving in every direction: She is the call to a restless and complex prophesy. She is the breath, and She is the fire.